01 December 2010

Castle Hunting: Sigulda Castles

Latvia is a land of castles, in a way that is inspiring and overwhelming. There are so many because Latvia was, at one time, on a major trade route between the scandinavian countries, the Russian metropolises and the more southern European empires in present-day Germany and Poland. A rich patchwork of fiefdoms sprouted up in the land that was once called Livonia, and a number of small conflicts necessitated the construction of more and more castles - also wars with Sweden, the Russians, the Germans and others. Today, most of the castles are ruined or are later buildings, like "Sigulda New Castle," pictured above. This castle is more of a manor house, and is pretty much indefensible. It was used as a sanatorium during Soviet rule.
Behind Sigulda New Castle is Sigulda Old Castle, which is more impressive but also not much more than a pile of rocks in the snow. It was extremely cold on the day we were poking around and the sun was nearing the horizon (at about three in the afternoon - sunset here is currently at 3:43 in the afternoon), so we didn't stay all that long. It's amazing how darkness sneaks up on you in Latvia. It seems as though the day is just starting, then the sun goes away.
This castle was built in 1207, which is a very long time ago. It is actually pretty impressive that the main gate tower is still standing, and that it's in such good condition. There is something about an un-restored castle that seems more authentic, even if it's ruined. Seeing the rough stonework and the heavy, original material makes the weight of history more immediate than the patched up, rebuilt tourist traps that many ruins become. I would have liked to spend more time, but my fingers were getting frozen to the camera...
This is the view northeast from Sigulda Old Castle, across the river Gauja, towards Pils Turaida ("Pils" means castle or fort), which has been restored and is a completely different kind of fortification. It's amazing that these two castles are within sight of one another.
Unlike the new building and the ruin outside Sigulda village, the Pils Turaida is quite touristy - though not in the bitter cold of November, apparently. We were one of only a few people wandering around the castle and the surrounding museum and sculpture park. The construction of Turaida was begun just seven years after Sigulda, in 1214. The site was more advantageous to the defenders, the walls were made of brick and the main feature was a huge, thick tower (which can be seen in the center of the picture, above). The gate towers (the squat cylinder on the left is one gatehouse, the other is gone except for its foundation) flanked a long spit of the hill's shoulder, with precipitous drops on either side. It was the only easy route along the knoll to the main tower and the other castle buildings.
Inside, the tower has been partially restored and is lit up with corny, faux-medieval candelabra. We were mostly alone here, too, except for a small group of tourists who we met on one of the tight staircases. The walls of the tower are about twelve feet thick, with a staircase passage running inside the bricks - five floor seems a little excessive until you see the view...
Latvia is trying very hard to establish its identity as a castle destination, and it has poured a lot of money into the refurbishment of its stone-and-mortar assets. As a result, there are buildings like Pils Turaida, which are mainly constructed with new brick by modern craftsmen. It's interesting to go, but it doesn't have the same historic feeling. At least, here, the tower is mostly original - and they let you climb it. The view out over the frozen landscape was pretty spectacular all the same. The castle sits above a bend in the Gauja, and the television tower of Sigulda is visible beyond, in the top-left corner of the photo.


  1. i am finding "castle hunting" both interesting, in the historical sense,delighted in the beauty of it, and fun...the two of you on your journey, somewhat like nomads...and then getting that feel of what "home",protection,and roots was to another culture, civilization...sometimes it has me imagining you both on horseback, trotting towards the next one. and what a perfect way to encapsulate the history and the present beauty of each country. the views have been breathtaking..thank you, merlin!

  2. Thank you so much for your historical approach of your visit, that inspire me to do the same, but I won't go in winter .